Syracuse clings to bowl hopes ahead of meeting with Duke

Redshirt senior defensive end Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo and the Blue Devils will look to push past a  Syracuse offensive line decimated by injuries Saturday at the Carrier Dome.
Redshirt senior defensive end Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo and the Blue Devils will look to push past a Syracuse offensive line decimated by injuries Saturday at the Carrier Dome.

Racked by injuries, Syracuse enters this weekend with its back against the wall.

After dropping six of their last seven games, the Orange have turned Saturday’s tilt against No. 22 Duke into a must-win contest. A Syracuse team that has been forced to dig deep into its depth chart must now win its final three games to secure a bowl berth for a third straight year.

“There's still a chance [to become bowl eligible]," Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer said. "We've got to win out and pull off a miracle, but let's do it, man. Let's go out there and do it.”

To do it, the Orange will first need to dispatch a Duke team that brings a three-game winning streak to Syracuse, N.Y. The most pressing concern for Syracuse heading into Saturday's game is figuring out who will be under center by the time 12:30 p.m. rolls around at the Carrier Dome.

True freshman quarterback AJ Long, who started the year third on the depth chart, was forced into the starting role last month following injuries to both senior Terrel Hunt and sophomore Austin Wilson. But Shafer announced Thursday that Long is dealing numbness in his hand and right shoulder inflammation, and is listed as highly doubtful for Saturday's game. With Hunt—the starter at the beginning of the season—out for the year with a fractured fibula, Shafer will look to Wilson to shoulder the load if Long cannot suit up.

The protection in front of the Syracuse signal-caller has also been decimated by injuries. Behind an offensive line transformed by injuries into a weekly game of mixing and matching the five healthiest linemen, Long has shown flashes of promise but has struggled to produce consistently.

Last week against N.C. State, Long threw for 307 yards and two touchdowns but added two interceptions and converted on just 22 of his 42 pass attempts in the 24-17 home loss. In three starts under center, Long has put up 186.7 yards per game and two touchdowns against four interceptions.

“The growth of a young quarterback will always be up and down,” Shafer said. “[Long has] done a good job of handling it and learning from his mistakes.”

Long had found a favorite target in senior Jarrod West last week, connecting with him seven times for 161 of his yards through the air, but a Duke secondary that has allowed just five passing scores all season will look to limit the success of the Orange aerial attack.

On the ground, Syracuse will look to exploit Duke’s run defense, a weakness Pittsburgh’s James Conner blatantly exposed last weekend while racking up 263 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Junior Prince-Tyson Gulley, the Orange's primary back, is averaging 4.9 yards on 107 carries this season, but was held to just 28 yards on 15 carries by the Wolfpack defense last Saturday.

“Syracuse is an interesting team,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “They’ve got some people that can run—this is another big, physical offensive and defensive front. They pose matchup challenges.”

The Orange rushing attack will hope to exploit those mismatches and rebound against Duke’s 107th-ranked rushing defense. Success on the ground will be key to jumpstarting the team’s sluggish offensive production—Syracuse is averaging just 20.1 points per game, ranking them 109th in the nation.

Long and the rest of the offense will also need to minimize mistakes when they have the ball, as the squad has committed six turnovers and allowed 12 sacks in the past two games alone. In comparison, the Blue Devils have played three straight games without a sack or turnover on offense.

When Duke does have the ball, Syracuse’s 42nd-ranked scoring defense will hope to slow down a dangerous Duke offense that is averaging 35.8 points per game this season. The Orange defense has had some success in its second year under defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough, including limiting Clemson to a single trip to the end zone in a 16-6 loss two weeks ago.

Senior linebacker Cameron Lynch has led the Syracuse defense with 73 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks—more than twice as many as any of his teammates.

“I think it is a knack for the ball,” Shafer said about Lynch. “Anytime you’ve got a big, strong upper body and lower body and you know how to get to the ball with those natural instincts you have on the field, it lends itself to being a good tackler.”

Syracuse will likely need a strong performance from its defense to keep its battered offense within reach Saturday. An upset victory at home in the Carrier Dome is the first step in the improbable journey to bowl eligibility for the beleaguered Orange.


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